Types of Poem Forms – French Lai and Virelai Poems

The French Lai and Virelai fixed poem forms are believed to have originated prior to the 13th or 14th centuries (also known as descort poems). Filled with romance and adventure these were the song poems of Middle Age French Trouvère poets . One of these who made this type of poem form famous was Marie de France of King Henry II's English court. While very little is known about her personally, she was quite a talented woman and well educated. Her Lais of Marie de France was not only popular in her time, but still survives today.

Perhaps one of the most antiquated French fixed poem forms, the French Lai is comprised of couplets of five syllabled lines, all on the constant rhyme, split by single lines of two syllables each, which also rhymed with one another. The lines in each of the stanzas were not fixed, nor were the number of stanzas in the whole poem were not rigid in number.

Additionally, by custom this fixed form of poetry was truly “fixed,” in that it was unbendingly held that indentation of the briefer lines was absolutely prohibited. This rule was known as the arbre fourchu (forked tree), simply because once written on paper, the poem looked like a tree with branches projecting outward.

Another curiosity with the French Lai poems is that where Lais have more than one stanza, the two rhymes in each stanza have no position to the rhymes in any other stanza.

Marie de France presents her book to Henry II of England.  Source: Charles Chasselat (1782 - 1843) 1820, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Marie de France presents her book to Henry II of England. Source: Charles Chasselat (1782 - 1843) 1820, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Rhyme Scheme for French Lai Poems

The rules are as follows:

  • A usual total of nine lines (but some are longer)
  • Lai poems have only two rhyme schemes.
  • The first rhyme scheme is fixed at being five syllables long.
  • The second rhyme scheme is fixed at being only two syllables long.

Thus an example would be:

1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2

(Note: Lai poems only have nine short lines.)

I like the shortness of French Lai poems, but don't let that brevity fool you, it's in that fact alone that they can often be a challenge to write. Here's my example:

The scent of your cologne

Stings memory alone

Poor me

Heart heavy as stone

Where love did once shone

No glee

Loss cuts to the bone

Where has our love flown?

Cries me.

Jerilee Wei © 2011

French Virelai Poems

The French Virelai poem (also known as the Virelai Ancien) grew out of the French Lai poem form, with a sequence of rhymes throughout.

Here’s an example of the Virelai rhyme line scheme in a twelve line stanza:

1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1, 2

2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3 etc.

(Note: The last stanza would end up being: n, n, 1, n, n, 1, n, n, 1, n, n, 1)

Thus, each rhyme sound would appear once in the longer lines, and also once in the shorter lines.

Lays of Marie de France, 12th century; translation 1911, Source:  translator Eugene Mason, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Lays of Marie de France, 12th century; translation 1911, Source: translator Eugene Mason, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

French Virelai Nouveau Poems

The Virelai Nouveau is penned throughout on two distinct rhymes. However, its initial rhyrmed couplet functions as a refrain for the later stanzas. Additionally, the two lines that close each subsequent stanza do so interchangeably until the last two lines. These last two lines appear together, but in reverse order.

The rules are as follows:

  • A total of 16 lines (two 8 line stanzas)
  • First two lines repeat as the last two lines in the 16th line but in reverse order.
  • Virelai Nouveau have only two rhyme schemes.
  • The first rhyme scheme is fixed at being five syllables long.
  • The second rhyme scheme is fixed at being only two syllables long.

An example would be:

1a, 1 b

1, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1a

1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 2, 1, 1b

1, 2, 1, 1b, 1a

Of course, this means that the later stanzas are unbalanced, but each stanza is confined to the two rhymed sounds. The refrains take place in the set order as in the example above and are of course, reversed.

Examples of French Lai and Virelai Poems

  • Gautier d’Apchier “Quan foille flors reverdezis”
  • Adelaide Crapsey “Song”
  • Frances Cornford “To A Fat Lady Seen From the Train”
  • Austin Dobson “July”
  • Marie de France “Lanval”

Medieval Virelai Music & Song - XIII th & XIV th Century - E, Dame Jolie & Douce Dame Jolie

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Comments 11 comments

Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks Ginn Navarre! The shortness is half the fun of this fixed poem form.


Ginn Navarre profile image

Ginn Navarre 5 years ago

I too like the shortness of the French Lai poems for their rythum and their meaning does not get lost--excellent!


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks lilyfly! Have fun with it.


lilyfly profile image

lilyfly 5 years ago from Wasilla, Alaska

Jerilee, I loved the actual knowledge of the set-up of the poetry.. I'm going to tyr it! Thanks! lily


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks anglnwu! I learned them a lifetime ago and so in many ways reviewing them was like learning them all over again from the perspective of a much older person.


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 5 years ago

I'm just learning all these different forms of poetry from you. Love the cologne poem--nicely done.


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks robie2! Working on this series reminded me how much I do love poetry, something I had put aside long ago and now want to explore more.


robie2 profile image

robie2 5 years ago from Central New Jersey

This French series is fabulous-- makes me want to start reading some French poetry--and the video is wonderful too


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 5 years ago from United States Author

Thanks AudreyHowitt!

Thanks Hyphenbird! I'm learning a lot from all the wonderful hubs during this contest myself.


Hyphenbird profile image

Hyphenbird 5 years ago from America-Broken But Still Beautiful

I am learning so much about poetry from your Hubs. Than kyou for all of the details you include.


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 5 years ago from California

Beautifully written and so interesting!

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